June 14, 2017

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the bus ride to Dulles International Airport last month, University of Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson collected his players’ phones. Then he handed out a short quiz.

“We were like, `Geez, we just got done with finals,’ ” defender Megan Reid recalled, shaking her head.

The players need not have worried. Nobody was sent home with a failing grade. Swanson simply wanted to see how prepared they were for what awaited them abroad.

“It was team-bonding,” Reid said, “but in a different way. That was a fun start to the trip.”

About two dozen UVA players, plus their coaches and a small support staff, recently journeyed from the United States to Europe. The Cavaliers, who took a similar trip to England in 2013, left on May 20 and returned on June 2. In between, they played two games in France and one in Germany. They also visited Belgium, where they stayed outside of Brussels, and had a meal in Holland.

During the trip, the team stayed in four hotels. At each stop, the players switched roommates.

“I would say we had a very tight team that got even tighter, and I don’t think you can put a measurement on that, how important that is,” said Swanson, who’s heading into his 18th season at Virginia, where he’s built one of the nation’s premier programs.

“We were in such tight quarters for two weeks. We did some things purposely to bring our team closer together, but there was a lot of indirect bonding that went on — just by being on the bus and being in the cities and having some fun together outside of the field — that I think is part and parcel with building teams. So I think that was good.”

The four freshmen who will join the Wahoos’ program this summer were not eligible for the trip, but the core of the team was available for the games in Europe.

UVA defeated VGA Saint-Maur and Lille in France and lost to FC Cologne in Germany, but the results of the matches were not of primary importance to the coaching staff. Swanson did not hesitate to move players around and use them in different combinations in Europe.

“When you go on a trip like that, it’s important you play good competition, which we did, but even more it’s an opportunity to try some things, to experiment with players on one side of the field or the other or one position or the other, to see what kind of relationships and roles we can develop on the field,” Swanson said.

“I think for us, that opportunity to evaluate our system, our players, where they go, what’s their best spot for the fall, really will pay large dividends come the beginning of preseason. We’re that much farther along.”

Reid said: “Your team dynamic and identity is changing with each year. So getting an extra couple weeks to [develop] that is very beneficial. Learning people’s strengths and weaknesses, just getting closer to them personally, all helped on the field. I think being able to get these three games in was beneficial for learning who we are as a team, earlier than we might have been, say, if we’d just started in August.”

The `Hoos had an extended stay in Paris, where they “saw all the sights,” Swanson said, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, Sacre Coeur, the Louvre, the Champs-Elysées, and the Arc de Triomphe.

“There wasn’t a lot we didn’t do in Paris,” Swanson said. “It was a beautiful city.”

The highlight of the trip for Swanson, and for Reid, a senior from Orinda, California, was the team’s visit to Normandy, France, site of the D-Day invasion in World War II.

“Before we left [for Europe], we watched a documentary as a team about D-Day,” Swanson said, “and it was great, because it set up that battle and why it was so pivotal and how it wasn’t just the landing. It entailed so much more than that. They got a real sense of the historical perspective.”

A guide spent about six hours with the traveling party in Normandy, and his insight enhanced the experience for the visitors.

“Low tide, we walked out on Omaha Beach,” Swanson said. “Can you imagine this? We faced the cliffs, and he put everything into words. Here’s what these guys were up against.

“It was life-changing, just to understand exactly what our service men and women went through.”

The team also visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, as well as Pointe du Hoc, a promontory that saw fierce fighting between U.S. Army Rangers and Germans during World War II.

“It’s almost surreal, because you realize how many lives were lost there and how much history you are sitting on,” Reid said of Pointe du Hoc.

“I think the thing that struck me the most, at least me personally, was the American cemetery, because our guide went through and literally had personal stories about specific people and told us how [the film] Saving Private Ryan was actually based off of these two brothers. It was a great way to learn about our own history.”

In addition to playing three games, the `Hoos watched two others in person. They attended a women’s match between Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux and were in the crowd at the 81,000-seat Stade de France for the French Cup men’s final between Paris Saint-Germain and Angers.

The Cavaliers are coming off a season in which they finished 15-5-2 after falling in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. UVA lost four of the nine players who totaled six or more points last fall, including midfielder Alexis Shaffer, the ACC player of the year. Other maintstays who must be replaced include Morgan Stearns, a four-year starter at goalkeeper.

Virginia’s captains this season are Reid, junior defender Brianna Westrup and senior forward Veronica Latsko.

Of the Cavaliers’ returning players, Latsko had the most points (19) last season. Also back are such players as sophomores Taylor Ziemer (18 points), Meghan McCool (seven points) and Alissa Gorzak (six points), and junior Betsy Brandon (10 points). And then there’s sophomore Courtney Petersen, who withdrew from the University last fall to play for the United States in the U20 World Cup.

Petersen, who returned to school in January, missed the Cavaliers’ spring exhibitions while recovering from an injury, as did Reid.

“So it was really good to get them in to play with the team again [in Europe],” Swanson said. “That was a real benefit.”

Not long after the new semester began in January, the Cavaliers resumed training.

“Obviously you take a break for spring break and you take a little break for exams and things like that, but they’ve worked very hard this spring,” Swanson said. “And so it was nice to be able to go over to Europe and have the importance of the games, but also be able to do some things off the field and really develop the things that are very important to the chemistry piece and the understanding piece and the relationships piece that goes into any good team or organization. I think you have to be able to trust your teammates. You have to know them, you have to understand them, and I think a trip like this really helps that.”

The educational benefits of the tour were perhaps more important.

For the players “to go experience what we did in Normandy, I think they’ll remember that the rest of their lives, as they should,” Swanson said, “because you realize the sacrifice that so many men and women made for our country and other countries, and the liberties they have. That was a very powerful couple of days.”

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